Behind the Book: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Still from 1975 film adaptation , directed by Peter Weir.

Still from 1975 film adaptation, directed by Peter Weir.

Whether you’re struggling to get out of your month-long reading slump, or just in need of a break from all those unfun class readings, Thanmaya Navada thinks that you should sit back and check out one of her all-time favourite historical fiction novels, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

If there’s one thing that rings true after reading this book, it’s that there’s a thin line between fact and fiction. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is an Australian historical-fiction novel published in 1967. It tells the haunting tale of three young girls and a teacher who mysteriously vanish from a class excursion to Hanging Rock on Valentine’s Day in 1900. The novel explores the implications of this event on the rest of the students, the reactions of various residents in the town of Woodend, and the investigation that takes place. I’d recommend going into this novel with as little information as possible and a completely open mind.

The book is prefaced with:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As this fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

This seemingly cryptic foreword is then followed by a story that takes place in the real setting of Hanging Rock - traditionally known as Ngannelong - and the surrounding towns of the Mount Macedon region. Prior to the novel, no such events had reportedly taken place in this area.

Ngannelong was previously known for being a ceremonial meeting place for those of the Wurundjeri, Taungurong, and Djadja Wurrung tribes. The area continues to hold significance for the Indigenous population of Australia and the “spiritual essence” of the rock has been a prominent aspect of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Clearly, the area has fascinated those past and present for hundreds of years, and also holds and ever-looming presence in this novel. The school that the students in the book attend, Appleyard College, was inspired by Clyde Girls’ Grammar School in East St Kilda which Lindsay herself attended for a short time. The town of Woodend, whose police force head the investigation, is also based on the real town. Frankly, this is as far as the similarities go. But interestingly, throughout the novel, Lindsay includes pseudo-historical newspaper extracts and often addresses the reader directly, placing you at the forefront of the mystery and imploring you to question whether the events taking place really are fiction.

Above all, this novel is a mystery. But perhaps what its pseudo-historical nature combined with the mystery element allows for is an active readership; someone to constantly be on their toes and questioning the realism of the novel when it calls for it.

What I enjoy most about this novel is that by the end, the initial mystery is almost forgotten. Rather than asking, "What happened to those girls?", the novel begs the question - and frames perhaps the true mystery of the novel - is it fact or fiction?

And maybe we can conclude, as previously mentioned, that, “it hardly seems important."

Thanmaya Navada is a second-year Journalism/International Studies student at UTS. She describes herself as a film-buff and bookworm, when she's not napping during literally every spare minute she gets. Also cheese. She loves cheese.